NASA on Tuesday took a tentative step toward contracting with private companies to send scientific payloads to the surface of the Moon, beginning as early as next year. The space agency hasn’t committed to funding these projects yet, but this may be a signal the agency is interested in a wider program to explore the Moon.
The agency released a request for information (RFI) for a “Small Lunar Surface Payload” program that recognizes the ability of several US companies to develop robots to land on the Moon. The timing coincides with the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which requires entrants to land a small spacecraft on the surface of the Moon by the end of 2017.
“NASA is asking for information about small instruments that could be placed on small lunar landers, and our interest is that we want to address our strategic knowledge gaps,” said John Guidi, deputy director of the advanced exploration systems division within NASA’s human spaceflight division.
Guidi announced the new RFI on Tuesday during the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group in Columbia, Maryland.
Those knowledge gaps—which NASA is studying to increase the effectiveness and improve the design of robotic and human space exploration missions to the Moon—include understanding the availability of resources, such as water ice, as well as better understanding how the lunar environment will affect human life and the ability to work and live on the lunar surface for long periods of time. By using low-cost private launchers and small, privately developed payloads, the space agency hopes to find answers to some of these research questions within its limited exploration budget.
NASA has not committed to funding development of the scientific experiments and instruments nor paying for the rocket launches. However, depending upon the response to the RFI, the agency will consider doing so, at least on a cost-sharing basis, Guidi said.
Officially, the space agency has no stated plans to return humans to the Moon. However, its European partners are interested in developing lunar outposts, and there are some indications that the next president may support using lunar landings as precursor missions to an eventual journey to Mars. This work would help lay the groundwork for such a plan.
One of the private companies interested in providing delivery services, Moon Express, responded to the government’s proposal with one of its own on Tuesday. The US company announced a program to provide $1.5 million in cash and services to support private payloads that NASA selects to fly to the Moon. Effectively, the company will be offering its services at a discount, providing up to $500,000 in funding for each instrument NASA chooses to fly on Moon Express’ first three spacecraft.
“The Moon Express Lunar Scout Program is designed to expand our partnership with NASA and support the lunar science community with new, low-cost lunar orbiter and surface missions,” said the company founder and chief executive, Bob Richards. “Our goal is to collapse the cost of access to the Moon to enable a new era of lunar exploration and development for students, scientists and commercial interests.”
Richards told Ars that the NASA announcement is significant because it marks the first time NASA has officially signaled its intent to move the commercial transport model beyond low-Earth orbit. Presently, NASA contracts with private companies SpaceX and Orbital ATK to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and it hopes Boeing and SpaceX begin flying humans into orbit by 2018. NASA is now considering how to extend that model to the Moon, Richards said.
There are substantial cost savings on offer. NASA’s last major robotic mission to the Moon, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, which included a lander that crashed into a pole to scout for water, cost in excess of $500 million. A provider like Moon Express or another company would potentially be able to offer surface missions with a limited scientific capability for less than $10 million. So instead of one big mission to accomplish several tasks, NASA might fund several smaller and much less expensive single-task missions.
How big might the payloads be? Probably on the order of cubesat size initially, but NASA and its commercial providers haven’t decided on that yet. “We didn’t specify a particular mass constraint, but the intent here is to solicit for payloads that would be suitable for delivery with emerging US commercial transportation services to the Moon,” said Nantel Suzuki, who is overseeing the lunar payload program for NASA. “The hope is that this would foster some communication between payload providers and transportation service providers, and collectively they’ll be able to figure out what ‘small’ means.”